Monday, May 17, 2010

My internship report, first of four

I've been extremely lucky to find myself amongst the furor of the first week of OpenFile's live website launch. Up until May 11, consisted of a blog with idealistic but vague posts, and links to Facebook and Twitter pages. Things quickly got more interesting when, on my first day in the office, their beta news site went live.
     If you haven't been keeping up with the buzz, you might need to know that OpenFile is the newest guess at what the future of journalism will look like. They are betting that it will look local, with an open and collaborative story development process, and that the stories will be community driven, freelancer-produced and curated by experienced old-media talent.
     So, what sets this start-up apart from all the others who are claiming to have divined the future?
     Well, first of: they pay freelancers really well, and really quickly. As a result, they are building a fan base amongst the unemployed writers, photographers and media people in Toronto (and even some of the employed ones) whom they will need in order to build up the story stable on the site. 
     Secondly, they have some money. And they have enough for three years, apparently.
     But that's not all. Word of OpenFile has spread thanks in part to the brand-value of the people associated with the project. Kathy Vey, the EIC, is a well-known Toronto Star alumnus. Wilf Dinnick was a TV correspondent for all the big North American stations. The only name I knew before applying for the internship, and the most well know in the internet world, in Craig Silverman, whose 2,200 Twitter followers certainly haven't hurt the start-up's efforts to get the word out about themselves. 
     Also, OpenFile have, in a way, combined the buzz concepts of the current online world, and successfully conceptualized how these concepts (open processes, discussion, conversation and crowd-souced information) could fit into a journalistic model. Silverman wrote about how a tipster, a reporter (me) and an editor carried this off in his second blog post after the launch: File Function
     During my first three days there, OpenFile has garnered the coverage they were coveting.  There were upbeat articles about them in some prestigious publications. The Globe and Mail article was the first, and might have prompted many of the others (that's the thing about old media: influence). Every time another article about them broke, the small staff would chatter gayly with each other, levy violent threats in vain at anyone who dared say anything negative, and give each other virtual high-fives in Twitter-land. (edit: it was stimulating event to be around. I wish I had ownership over a new project I was this excited about. Tune back in to my life the the new Dalhousie Gazette gets started in September.)
Here is a round-up of the kudos:

Business News Network (one and two) -- these are good clips to watch if you want to know about how the money aspect works

And more bloggy-type coverage:
Torontoist (which included a very nice photo gallery in which I appear - take it as proof that I'm attending my internship, perhaps)
Mondoville (who've exhibited a bit of snark and a lot more skepticism than the other sites)

Predictably, a lot of the positive response to OpenFile has come from journalists. Some of the more personal responses, emailed directly to the editorial team instead of expressed publicly on Twitter or Facebook, were unexpected.
But despite all the hype, OpenFile has hurdles to overcome. The Halifax Daily News and the New York Times experimented with the hyper-local model, planting reporters in specific neighbourhoods and attempting to benefit from that involvement with the grassroots community. Their experiments failed. Maybe journalists don't have the most active imagination when it comes to local news. Maybe, like my prof said, there is a problem in "defining news by where it happens instead of what it is."
     I see a possible disconnect between the audience they are ultimately aiming for, and the audience they are currently reaping. They need to have a big number of unique visitors in order to satisfy their funders. They won't get those numbers by leeching from the established Toronto blogs and Twitter feeds, or by attracting only disenfranchised journalists. I don't see how the site can create a comprehensive portrait of all the Toronto  neighbourhoods without some targeted street outreach work promoting their site. 
     Another question I have is: what is their argument that the internet is the best medium for neighbourhood news? Don't people who connect to the internet generally have more education, more money, more options, and thus more of an interest in the things outside their own neighbourhood? And perhaps, is neighbourhood news not best garnered from the neighbourhood itself: the local flyers, the notice boards, the conversations at the grocery store?
     But maybe I'm destined to miss the appeal of hyper-local internet news, because I've never really felt connected to any neighbourhood. It has been 14 years since I have lived in any one house for longer than a year. I use the internet to feel connected to things I can't walk to, or call on the phone. Maybe I spend too much time with the hyper-international? So, I'm not the target audience of hyper-local sites.
       OpenFile's overwhelming strength is that they are taking it slow. They have capital funding for three years: it has taken them less than one to get where they are now. They are smart, well-connected, experienced journalists. They have fully thought-out the project they are working on, but they are not rigid. They expect to morph over the next weeks, in order to keep up with what they will need to become. They are open to suggestions. I think the bookies are still undecided on what will happen to this gamble. 


Anonymous said...

Freelance != unemployed. At least, not good freelancers. But thanks for that.

Béthany said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Béthany said...

Yes, that's partially true. But freelance /= employed, either.